It’s rare to find a true linebacker selected in the top five picks of the draft. In the past ten years, only Aaron Curry and AJ Hawk have heard their names called within the first five picks. Von Miller is poised to buck the trend and join that group. Miller’s combination of natural athleticism and speed is special for a 240lber. He moves with ease on the field, is very fluid changing directions, and closes extremely well. He has been utilized as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker and excelled in that role in college. He led the NCAA in sacks as a junior with 17, while notching another 11 this season. He definitely brings value to 3-4 teams, but his natural athleticism and speed will project to a traditional 4-3 strong side role as well. Miller’s rise in the last half of the season has been phenomenal. He started the season off slowly, with just two sacks through his first seven games. While it was mainly due to an injury, it still impacted his status and he was potentially sliding out of the first round. As he got healthy, he exploded in the second half. In Texas A&M’s final six games, Miller had 9 sacks, leading the Aggies to a 6-1 record. In the process, he re-established himself as a likely top ten selection. His combine performance pushed him up even further, and now is in the equation as the best overall player in the draft. While he will not likely be the first player taken, he should hear his name called within the first five picks on draft day.
Akeem Ayers is another standout athlete at the linebacker position that provides a lot of versatility. Ayers’ size and skills could project well in a 3-4 alignment, but he may be best suited as a strong side linebacker in a 4-3 defense. Ayers is a rare player that can make plays as a pass rusher, run stopper, and in coverage. He has 24.5 tackles for loss, ten sacks, and six interceptions his final two seasons for UCLA. He is the ideal strong side linebacker, showing the athleticism, speed, and size to match up with tight ends in coverage but also being able to take on blocks and make plays in the running game. He has even lined up with his hand on the ground, giving him the ability to rush the passer on third downs, or make the switch to a 3-4 defense. Ayers did not have the standout performance at the combine that many expected, so his stock took a bit of a hit. He should still hear his name called at some point in the last third of the first round, but he could have cemented himself as a top 15 pick with a better performance.
Georgia’s Justin Houston surprised many at the combine. Many felt his future was solely as a 3-4 outside linebacker based on his skills and size. He was still projected as a late first rounder based on that belief. When he showed up at the combine at 270lbs, while still showing good speed and athleticism, he popped up as a potential 4-3 defensive end candidate. While he will still likely play in a 3-4 defense, that added versatility does not hurt at all. Houston shows the speed and athleticism to be able to make plays as a pass rusher off the edge, but also the strength to take on blocks and make plays in the running game as well. He should hear his name called in the last half of the first, but the extra weight gives him a lot more possible destinations now.
Chris Carter of Fresno St is another player that profiles well to a 3-4 outside linebacker. He split time in college at end and outside linebacker, but thrived as a pass rusher during his senior season. He has a good first step off the snap, and has the athleticism and speed to beat the tackle and close on the quarterback on a consistent basis. He lacks the size and strength to hold up as a defensive end, and will have to make the transition to a stand up role in the 3-4. Having experience standing up will definitely help in his transition to a 3-4 alignment. For teams needing a pass rush boost that didn’t grab it in the first, he will be a very attractive option in the second round.
Bruce Carter is one of the best athletes in the draft, but didn’t get a chance to showcase his skills at the combine. A torn ACL at the end of his senior season will likely keep him from working out for teams before the draft, and really puts his draft status in limbo. When healthy, Carter is a fantastic athlete with tremendous closing speed. He plays sideline to sideline and can chase down plays most linebackers couldn’t. His physical tools allowed him to make up for less than ideal instincts, but he could flourish in a scheme that allows him to attack. He needed the combine to showcase his physical skills to establish himself as a prospect, but he could still hear his name called in the third round if some team is confident in his ability to return to pre injury form.
Nevada’s Dontay Moch is a college end that will have to make the transition to linebacker at the next level. His game is all about speed, and he has plenty of it. He has a quick burst off the snap, the ability to change directions with ease, and is as fast as any front seven defender in the draft to close on plays. He has the natural tools to move to OLB in a 4-3 alignment but his pass rush ability may be better utilized in a 3-4 defense. He will have some trouble getting off blocks, but his speed allows him to get a step on most tackles before they get a chance to lock on to him. He needs to develop other parts of his game, but his ability as a speed rusher off the edge is tremendous. A team falling in love with his speed could take him in the early second, but more likely he’ll come off the board in the late second or early third.
Washington’s Mason Foster is a rare sight among the top linebackers in this draft: a true 4-3 linebacker. Foster makes plays because of his toughness, relentlessness, and instincts. He quickly reads the play and gets to the action very quickly. He does bring solid athleticism and speed, which combined with his other traits, makes him a tackling machine. His value as a 4-3 linebacker could allow him to come off the board earlier than some expect, but he shouldn’t last very long into the third round if he slides there.
Mark Herzlich of Boston College is a player everyone roots for. Not just because he plays the game the right way, but because of his battle with cancer off the field. A potential first round pick in 2010 until he was diagnosed, Herzlich has come a long way just to get back on to the field. That speaks about his heart and drive, two traits that are hard to measure. The disease did take away some of his natural athleticism and speed, which has hindered his draft prospects. He is still a tough, instinctive football player that you can go to battle with but his upside is limited. He is a third day pick that could be able to carve a niche as a reserve and special teamer, but his upside is limited.
A few more names to keep an eye on on Day three at the outside linebacker position: KJ Wright(Mississippi St), Lawrence Wilson(UConn), and Kenny Rowe(Oregon).
Illinois’ Martez Wilson leads the pack at inside linebacker, but he could play a number of roles at the next level. He has the size, run stopping ability, and tackling skills to play inside, but his athleticism and speed allow him to project to the outside as well. He is very active against the run, and can fill gaps very quickly. He has the speed to chase plays down up and down the line of scrimmage. In coverage, he has the speed to run step for step deep down the field. He’s also shown some effectiveness as a pass rusher. With his overall package of skills, he’s one of the more versatile defenders and which role he plays, will depend on the team that selects him. Wilson will likely go somewhere between 25-45 on draft day.
Michigan State’s Greg Jones is a tackling machine inside. He is very active in all facets of the game, and is always looking to hit somebody. He has the speed to play sideline to sideline and is tough enough to battle in the trenches in the running game. His lack of bulk and strength at the point of attack are the biggest negatives in his game, but his overall game and skills make him a plus defender inside. He’ll make more plays than he misses, and would be a great third day selection.
North Carolina’s Quan Sturdivant is a very active middle linebacker. He is at his best moving forward, attacking the ball carrier. He has great run instincts and nothing gets in the way of him getting to the football. A hamstring injury slowed him down this year, but he does have the speed and athleticism to make some plays in space as well. Sturdivant could go in the third or fourth round come April.
Kelvin Sheppard of LSU doesn’t really standout physically, though he does have good size in the middle. His instincts and intangibles stand out however. Sheppard is quick to read the run, which gets him to the action faster than his speed would indicate. He was the leader of the Tiger defense, and motivates his teammates to step up their play. He may not chase plays down all over the field or make game changing plays, but he is steady on the field, and his value goes beyond the plays he makes.
Oregon’s Casey Matthews is another player whose value goes way beyond his physical tools. He does not have anywhere near the physical talent his brother Clay has, but his football IQ definitely stands out. He has fantastic instincts and finds a way to get to the football. He doesn’t have great size or speed, but will make plays in the trenches, and will get out on the perimeter to make the tackle. The toughness and attitude he plays with are contagious, and its his leadership that makes him a quality player.
Colin McCarthy(Miami), Nate Irving(NC St.), and Scott Lutrus(UConn) are a couple of names to watch on Day Three as potential sleepers.
There are a few players that could qualify as linebackers, based on the team that selects them. Defensive ends Robert Quinn(North Carolina), Aldon Smith(Missouri), Ryan Kerrigan(Purdue), Brooks Reed(Arizona), and Jabaal Sheard(Pitt) are all outside linebacker candidates for 3-4 defenses, and should all come off the board in the first two rounds.